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Martin Steinmann INTRINSIC MERIT AND MULTICULTURALISM O OME proponents of multiculturalism argue as follows: There is no such thing as intrinsic merit. Therefore, the hegemony ofwestern culture in America is not due to its intrinsic merit. Therefore, it is due only to the political and economic power of white Americans of European ancestry, especially males. Therefore, it might yield to a new order in which all cultures represented in America, whatever dieir origin, have equal authority , influence, and status in schools, colleges, and universities, in theaters and concert halls, in museums and galleries, and in libraries. Is this a good argument for multiculturalism? I propose to examine not only its validitybutits assumptions and what impels diese multiculturalists to make it. Is there such a thing as intrinsic merit? A famous and influential argument that there is—W K. Wimsatt and Monroe C. Beardsley's "The Affective Fallacy" (1949)—argues that the merit (or lack of merit) of literature, and by extension the other arts, is intrinsic. Actually—what comes to much the same thing—this essay attacks die belief that merit is extrinsic, in particular that it inheres in effects upon readers. The Affective Fallacy, they claim, "is a confusion between the poem [where poem is synecdoche for work of literature] and its results (what it is and Philosophy and Literature, © 1994, 18: 253-264 254Philosophy and Literature what it does) .... It begins by trying to derive die standards of criticism from the psychological effects of the poem and ends in impressionism and relativism." The standards ofcriticism ought to be derived, Wimsatt and Beardsley say, from "cognitive analysis ofparadox, ambiguity, irony, and symbol"—that is, intrinsic features of the poem itself. Are Wimsatt and Beardsley right? I think not. For one tiling, the weight of opinion, of both critics and writers, is against diem. For Aristode, the point of a tragedy was to arouse pity and fear in the audience. For Horace, die point of poetry was to please and instruct readers (dulce et utile) . For Dickens, die point of his novels was to make readers laugh and cry. For Henry James, every choice he made as a novelist—of characters, incidents, setting, point ofview—he made widi effects upon readers in mind. Even for Romantic poets, diough die merit of a poem did not lie in its effects upon readers, it did not lie in its intrinsic features either, but in its effects upon the poet himself (for Wordswordi, occasioning "die spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings ") . Indeed, not until the advent, in the late thirties, of the school of which Wimsatt and Beardsley were die chief theoreticians—die New Criticism—did critics locate merit in intrinsic features. Critics and writers, of course, often speak of intrinsic features but only, as James does, to relate them to somediing extrinsic. Aristode, for instance, says diat a tragedy can arouse pity and fear only if its hero is a person of middling virtue who undeservedly goes from good fortune to bad in die course of the play. Books of literature are created by humans for humans, and whatever merit (or lack of merit) they may have humans confer upon them. Far from being an intrinsic merit, paradox or ambiguity or irony or symbol or any intrinsic feature of a work is no merit at all unless readers count it as a merit; readers may disagree about whether it is a merit (the relativism thatWimsatt and Beardsley deplore) ; every standard to which diey may appeal to settle disputes is a standard created by humans; and they may have various reasons for counting it as a merit (or a defect). The most common reason, of course, commits the Affective Fallacy: the feature affects readers in a way they find desirable. (As I shall note later, in section III, diere can be other reasons less direcdy related to the effect of the work.) It is not easy for readers (or theorists of literary value) to sayjust what die effect is ofan intrinsic feature or why readers count this effect as desirable or even what feature of the work causes this effect. But, though Wimsatt and Beardsley, in arguing dieir case for the Affective Fallacy, make...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 253-264
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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